Few places could be more apt for performing the music of the Enlightenment epoch than Bath, still a magnificent city despite the criminal demolition and rebuilding of the handsome artisan district between the railway station and the Green Park in the 1960s, which might have destroyed the town entirely if it hadn’t been stopped. It’s a Georgian city, where Georgian—or classical—music was performed at the time, and has been since. The midsummer music festival, begun in 1948 and later directed by Yehudi Menuhin and then Michael Tippett, was joined in 1990 by the annual Mozartfest.
Nine days of chamber music in November comprise sixteen concerts in all and a talk from Alfred Brendel, who nowadays aptly fits two cliches of the age, an iconic figure and a national treasure. All but two are in one or other Georgian venue, both splendid, the larger Assembly Rooms, redolent of Jane Austen’s heroes and heroines, and the smaller, acoustically perfect Guildhall, where younger performers give lunchtime recitals.
Founded thanks to a charitable bequest, the festival’s animating genius is the energetic septuagenarian Amelia Freedman. She was a student at the Royal Academy of Music in 1964 when she founded the twelve-strong Nash Ensemble, and she still brings it to Bath every year: this year they play the Mozart B-flat String Quintet and the Schubert Octet. Despite the name, Mozart’s music is only a part of the festival repertory, although this year indeed kicks off with his “Hunt” Quartet, one of two recitals by the Takács Quartet before they turn Czechward with Janáček, Dvořák and Smetana.
On the first and the last Saturday of the festival there are larger concerts, in larger surroundings. First is Handel’s oratorio Jephtha (nowadays all too likely to be given as an opera, which it isn’t), performed in the grand if sometimes chilly surroundings of Bath Abbey. Those sitting near the walls can look at the fascinating array of memorial tablets from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Bath was the Sunset Home of the British Empire.
On the last Saturday, Sir Mark Elder conducts his Hallé Orchestra in the spacious but less lovely Forum, a 1930s cinema by origin, in the “Enigma” Variations and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Alina Ibragimova. But what for many people may be the highlight is the previous evening, when the hugely popular pianist András Schiff plays four Beethoven sonatas.
For more information, visit bathmozartfest.org.uk.
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